Public Goods Post
thinking about the public economy
Our throw-away culture
How often should a computer or a smartphone be replaced?

Technology companies with an eye on profits have persuaded us that we need the latest model. So, w
e compulsively throw away the old and buy the new.

Today’s throw-away value system - which might be called “Silicon Valley values” - is expensive for consumers, creates tons of unnecessary waste, degrades our natural environment and contributes to climate change. 
"Planned obsolescence" has been with us since the last century as an integral part of the modern business model. But technology companies watching their stock price instead of a warming planet have gone even further, building products that cannot be repaired and creating a value system that the social analyst Nassim Taleb has called "neomania." Up to this point our value system has not been widely questioned. Instead we continue to buy new smartphones and computers for fear of missing out on the latest “must-have” hardware and software changes. Unfortunately, our collective impulse to buy the latest product greatly impacts our planet’s well-being.

Some countries are recognizing that today’s throw-away culture is a major contributor to climate change and are taking steps to curtail it. 

For example, in Sweden legislators have proposed laws to encourage the repair of all kinds of products that are broken but can be readily fixed. Their plan, if enacted, will reduce value-added taxes for repairs and create new income tax deductions for citizens' repair expenses.

In the US, we have not collectively arrived at such a proactive response. In the past several decades Silicon Valley values have bolstered our repetitive consumption habits and many companies have worked to make repairs more difficult and costly for typical consumers. Lately, recycling has been encouraged as a solution to the growing realization that our consumption habits might be unsustainable. Recycling is important, but many phone and computer parts simply cannot be reused; indeed, as much as 35% of a smartphone is immediately lost in a common recycling process whereby the entire phone is shredded and ground up. Recycling puts even more garbage, toxins and poisons into our soil and water - such as one-time-use rare earth metals that are used in processors and touch screens. Not only are rare earth metals on track to become prohibitively expensive in the near future; the very mining of these metals causes further pollution. 


A movement is underway that questions the culture of replacement before repair and fights for the rights of consumers to repair their products., an online resource center for repair has become a leader in activism that encourages extending the useful lives of products that we already own. They were instrumental along with Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ISRI in swaying the U.S. Copyright Office to make modifications to copyright regulations that had stemmed from an international trade agreement. It is now legal to unlock your cell phone, tablets, wearables and TVs as well as to modify software on cars, tractors and heavy equipment., an association started by iFixit founder and CEO Kyle Wiens, represents professional and consumer repairers and has been involved in "Fair Repair" bills in Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Massachusetts. They say, "Repair is the lifeblood of local economies. Our members make products last longer, save owners money, and create local jobs." 

Freedom to Fix

In the United States, we don’t always have the freedom to fix the products that we own. Legislation is one way to change this and to restore some of the freedom that we have lost. It remains to be seen whether we in the United States will ever push through legislation that proactively rewards repair and reuse. The first step is to recognize the wasteful effects of our neomania.

Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs

The Guardian | September 19, 2016

"The Swedish government is introducing tax breaks on repairs to everything from bicycles to washing machines so it will no longer make sense to throw out old or broken items and buy new ones.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrat and Green party coalition is set to ... slash the VAT rate on repairs to bicycles, clothes and shoes from 25% to 12%.

It will also submit a proposal that would allow people to claim back from income tax half of the labour cost on repairs to appliances such as fridges, ovens, dishwashers and washing machines"

Apple's recycling robot wants your old iPhone. Don't give it to him.
Grist | October 11, 2016

"Because Apple has a proprietary interest in keeping decommissioned or counterfeit iPhones off the market, it imposes a 'full-destruction' policy on its recycling partners — which means that some components that could be reused wind up destroyed instead. That’s quite a waste.

When Apple destroys your old device, plenty of perfectly functional computer processing chips and cameras that could live on — whether in refurbished phones, toy pianos, hobby drones, or smart appliances — get melted down. Screens that could have replaced cracked ones, lending a few years of life to an older phone, are pulverized, and the trace amounts of the minerals that make them work are lost as so much dust."

Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough?
Earth Institute at Columbia University | September 19, 2012

"'[W]e are mining poorer and poorer ores all the time, and it takes more and more energy to extract the same amount of metal,' according to [Yale professor of Industrial Ecology Thomas] Graedel. 'I’m not worried that we’ll run out of rare earth metals, but will we have enough energy at a reasonable price to extract it?'” 

The Fight for the "Right to Repair"

Smithsonian Magazine | July 13, 2016

"The idea of planned obsolescence is nothing new. But the use of 'repair prevention' as a method of making products obsolete is growing, say right to repair proponents. Many companies that manufacture electronics—anything from laptops to refrigerators to your car’s onboard computer—now have restrictions that prevent consumers from having them fixed anywhere besides a licensed repair shop. Some companies use digital locks or copyrighted software to prevent consumers or independent repair people from making changes. Others simply refuse to share their repair manuals. Some add fine print clauses to their user agreements so customers (often unwittingly) promise not to fix their own products."

Big Tech Squashes New York's 'Right To Repair' Bill
The Huffington Post | June 17, 2016

"New York state legislation that would have required manufacturers to provide information about how to repair devices like the iPhone failed to get a vote, ending any chance of passage this legislative session. Similar measures have met the same fate in Minnesota, Nebraska, Massachusetts and, yes, even previously in New York.

Essentially, politicians never get to vote on so-called right to repair legislation because groups petitioning on behalf of the electronics industry gum up the proceedings.

... Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a group of nonprofits and businesses that backed New York’s right to repair legislation, blamed the lack of a vote on lobbyists for major tech companies ... Gordon-Byrne said lobbyists from IBM, Apple, Xerox and Cisco were particularly active in working against the legislation. A variety of interests have opposed right to repair measures in the past, including the Consumer Technology Association, to which IBM, Apple and Cisco belong.

Advocates say right to repair laws would protect consumers and help the environment by insuring that devices last longer, thus reducing electronics waste. If you or a business can affordably repair a broken device, you may have less incentive to buy a new one, the logic goes."

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The Public Goods Post has been created by June Sekera, 
Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the 
Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University.

The Public Goods Post is produced by Daniel Agostino, Digital Media Producer and Editor.

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